Las Vegas always has been known as a baseball town, with Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and Most Valuable Players Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant among those flying the flag.
More recently, it has become a hockey and pro football town, owing to the success of the Golden Knights and the presence and tradition of the Raiders.
But could the city be morphing into a soccer hotbed, too?
You could make that argument after last week’s Major League Soccer SuperDraft and the news Thursday that an ownership group had reached an exclusive negotiating agreement to move toward bringing an MLS expansion team to Las Vegas.
There were 28 players selected in the first round. Two represented Las Vegas high schools and club sides.
With the 10th selection, Nashville SC took defender Ahmed Longmire, who starred for Centennial, Heat FC, a Las Vegas club team, and UCLA.
With the 27th pick, the Portland Timbers chose former Bishop Gorman standout Justin Rasmussen, who spent his formative years playing travel soccer for the Las Vegas Sports Academy owned and operated by his parents, Jim and Patty. Also drafted as a defender, Rasmussen was an All-Western Athletic Conference performer at Grand Canyon.
“As predicted, LV producing more MLS players!” former UNLV standout and longtime local soccer enthusiast Simon Keith wrote in a text message after the names of Longmire and Rasmussen were taken off the board.
Wave yet to crest
Keith was part of the initial wave of soccer stalwarts with Las Vegas ties to play as a pro, having been drafted first overall by the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Cleveland Crunch in 1989.
More recently, former local high school and club players such as Matt Polster (New England Revolution), Tristan Blackmon (Vancouver Whitecaps FC) and Danny Musovski (Los Angeles FC) have added to Las Vegas’ MLS legacy.
Danny Leyva of the Seattle Sounders and Zico Bailey of FC Cincinnati were born in Las Vegas and Henderson, respectively, before joining academies sponsored by professional clubs.
And more are on the way.
Gavin Beavers, a 16-year-old goalkeeper from Henderson, last week was added to the first team at Real Salt Lake of the MLS. Tino Lopez, a Las Vegan who played in the Seattle Sounders Academy and local club side Albion FC before breaking into the starting lineup at Duke as a freshman, also is raising the eyebrows of MLS scouts.
“Everybody (in MLS) was claiming all these other areas, but Las Vegas was an untapped market for so long,” said Doug Borgel, who played at UNLV under Barry Barto and went on to build winning programs at Bishop Gorman and Las Vegas Sports Academy. “In the last five or six years, a lot of (MLS clubs) have started these academies, and they are starting to come in and snatch up players.”
Building the brand
Borgel said the advent of respected club programs such as LVSA, Heat FC and Albion SC, combined with resources such as abundant soccer facilities and coaches with vast experience, has extended Las Vegas’ youth soccer footprint during the past decade.
Throw in the city’s still burgeoning population and the internet, where budding strikers, midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers can attract attention with a 30-second video clip, and you have all the ingredients for another deep talent pool, Borgel says.
If Las Vegas is eventually successful in landing an MLS franchise — “We’re excited about the market as are all the other leagues here in North America,” commissioner Don Garber said at his annual state of the league address in December — Borgel said it could have the same effect on the sport’s growth in Southern Nevada as the Golden Knights’ arrival has for hockey.
“I think the lack of a MLS team slowed us down from getting more talent into it. But I think people are starting to see that Las Vegas has a lot of good players,” he said, suggesting that when it comes to soccer hotbeds, we’re only beginning to pull back the covers.
Representing Southern Nevada
Several players with ties to Southern Nevada have been drafted by MLS teams in recent seasons. Here is a partial list:
— Matt Polster (Palo Verde/Southern Illinois Edwardsville), Chicago Fire, seventh overall, 2015
— Tristan Blackmon (Bishop Gorman/Pacific), Los Angeles FC, third overall, 2018
— Danny Musovski (Liberty/UNLV), San Jose Earthquakes, 30th overall, 2018
— Ahmed Longmire (Centennial/UCLA), Nashville FC, 10th overall, 2022
— Justin Rasmussen (Bishop Gorman/Grand Canyon), 27th overall, Portland Timbers, 2022